Road to Revival: Davis’ start at center is huge for the Lakers

Anthony Davis is finally set to play center. 

It has taken years to get to this point.

In New Orleans, Davis played next to the likes of Omer Asik because he was so dead set on playing power forward. When Davis forced his way to Los Angeles, he made it clear he didn’t want to play the center position before the season even started, telling reporters during 2019 Media Day, “I like playing the four, I’m not even going to sugarcoat it. I like playing the four, I don’t really like playing the five.”

Davis has never been a full-time five. In high school, he played point guard where he developed his ball handling and perimeter touch, before a growth spurt forced him to change positions. When he got to Kentucky, Davis spent most of his minutes at power forward, winning the NCAA Basketball Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

In the NBA, there is an increased level of physicality compared to college basketball. Battling down low night in and night out against players like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid isn’t fun for anyone, let alone a guy like Davis who carries a massive offensive burden as well. 

Davis prefers to play the weak-side help role from the power forward spot, using his long arms and athleticism to atler shots or close out to shooters on the perimeter. He doesn’t have to box out burly centers and man the middle himself when he’s playing the four.

Heading into the preseason, the theme of this years’ Lakers squad is sacrifice. 

“You do what it takes for the betterment of the team,” Russell Westbrook said to Spectrum Sportsnet on Media Day Tuesday. “When you want to win, nothing can get in the way of that, the sacrifices you have to make.”

On a team with LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, sacrifices are going to have to be made. Westbrook may not get his 20 points per game or his usual triple-double. James might not get to pound the ball as often as he’s used to, he might find himself off-ball a lot more this season. 

For Davis, sacrifice means putting his body on the line on a nightly basis, playing the center position for the betterment of the team. 

And that’s really all it comes down to — the team is just so much better when Anthony Davis plays the five. When the Lakers made their 2020 bubble run to the title, Davis played 60% of his minutes at center in the playoffs and was absolutely dominant, averaging 27.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game on 57% shooting. 

Offensively, Davis at the five spells trouble for any opposing team. It’s a lot tougher on a Jokic or an Embiid; centers can’t just hang around the paint when guarding Davis but rather have to match up with him every possession, guarding pick-and-roll or handoff actions. Davis’ agility at his size also makes him more difficult to defend for slower centers, compared to faster power forwards.

The spacing Davis brings to the table is essential with a non-shooter in Westbrook running the point. Instead of having a traditional center clogging up the paint, with his man patiently waiting for James to drive, now the opposing center can only be two or three steps away from Davis at the three point line. 

This opens up driving lanes for Westbrook and James, who will put immense pressure on the rim every game. Inserting two guys who can shoot the ball in — Wayne Ellington and Trevor Ariza — in the starting lineup creates even more space for the Big 3 and an even bigger nightmare for the rest of the NBA. 

Davis’ ability to switch at center transforms head coach Frank Vogel’s defensive gameplan, giving him a longer leash to play with pick-and-roll coverages. The name of the game in modern basketball is versatility, and Davis’ unique two-way traits are extreme difference-makers when he is the lone big on the floor. 

Davis is a one-of-a-kind unicorn at power forward. It’s going to be scary hours for the league when the unicorn slides to his natural position. If he can stay healthy, I predict the Lakers will win 60-65 games with Davis at the five. 

Sahil Kurup is a sophomore writing about the Los Angeles Lakers upcoming season. His column “Road to Revival,” runs every other Friday.